art in review: steve roden: rag picker

by roberta smith new york times, 2013

Steve Roden, a multitalented multimedia artist based in Los Angeles, made a strong impression in the “Time Again” exhibition at the Sculpture Center two years ago with a brilliant split-screen video “ear is for sees (line and horns).” The 2007 work brought together natural forms, sculpture-making and Henry Moore together with makeshift collage and assemblage that often unfolded before your very eyes, confidently combining performative improvisation and historical awareness with a robust formal sense.

These qualities persist somewhat less successfully in Mr. Roden’s current solo show, which is dominated by large abstract paintings whose brusque prismatic forms embedded with shards of bright color can resemble mountains of stained glass.

In fact, they represent randomly selected combinations of linear configurations from a repertory of 36 that the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) devised to cross out mistakes in his notebooks. Mr. Roden, who does not read German, became fascinated with these often-overlooked symbol-like arrangements, which he culled from Benjamin’s papers during a fellowship in Berlin.

Mr. Roden is also showing smaller paintings whose vertical compositions are based on picture-postcards of the interior of the cathedral at Siena that Benjamin collected on a trip to Italy, and some large atmospheric monoprints made using his body and embellished with pencil and colored pencil that were inspired by Le Corbusier’s designs for the buildings in Chandigarh, India.

It is of passing interest that excavating early modernism can yield motifs that have an early modernist aura and evoke pioneering abstractionists like Frantizek Kupka and Oscar Bluemner. But that is also saying that they look familiar, if not archaic. Their genesis is idiosyncratic, but they need to look stranger themselves.